Written and directed by Rebecca Miller the filmmaker behind Personal Velocity and the daughter of the late playwright Arthur Miller The Ballad of Jack and Rose begins with the air of a fairy tale. A seasoned man (Daniel Day-Lewis) cuddles a young beauty (Camilla Belle) who's the picture of innocence, as they take in the expansive view of what we later find out is an isolated island off the U.S. East Coast. Thanks to skillful visual storytelling that's a step ahead of the dialogue (a strength throughout the film), we discern that the two are father and daughter. A wisp of a kiss reveals that their closeness is disquieting; after that, we know there's trouble in this paradise.
Father Jack is a free-spirited, trust-funded Scotsman who set up a commune on the island in the '60s. He also has an illness that's going to kill him sooner rather than later. So he fetches Kathleen (Catherine Keener), a woman he's surreptitiously been seeing for four months, to join him and his daughter on the island, bringing along her two disturbed teen sons. Jack doesn't want his Rose, now 16, to shoulder the burden of their situation alone. But his off-the-cuff decision releases a veritable Pandora's box of evils. When Rose's new family arrives, she's furious at having her world turned upside-down. In retaliation, she acts out in some typical adolescent ways (like having sex) and some that aren't so typical (like attempted murder).
The interactions of the new "family" are well-drawn and -acted as we enjoy the individual quirks that amusingly come to the fore. The only thing that gets Dad's attention, though, is when Rose airs a sheet that's been bloodied by her deflowering. She is "ruined," he spits at her in wretched despair.
Kathleen's a controlling opportunist with a "savior complex," as one of her sons explains it, but even she throws in the towel when things get murderous, and Jack hands over a $20,000 check as compensation for an experiment gone awry. A reunified Jack and Rose eventually come to a mutual understanding about purity and ruination.
Unfortunately, the filmmaker then indulges Day-Lewis (her real-life husband) with an unnecessarily melodramatic resolution that involves a showdown with a developer taking over the island, forcing Jack to come to terms with his fizzled-out ideals (and, we assume, his relationship with Rose's mother). This overweighted denouement disturbs the balance of Miller's film, an otherwise strange blend of a daughter's coming of age and a father's advancing toward death.